This week’s query comes from Lisa Ledsinger, formerly of Barry Road, who asks, “What’s up with the anchor in front of the Wise Avenue entrance of Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts?”

Have you ever tried to call the Navy? I don’t mean about recruitment, when they’ll trip over themselves to explain what a great educational and career opportunity military service is while downplaying that whole fighting and dying thing. I mean call the Navy just to ask a question. It astounds me that a revered and respected — and, might I add, generously funded — — institution equipped to fight two major wars simultaneously and capable of swift, accurate and overwhelming military response, can’t answer its phone. During my research, I obtained several phone numbers for Navy offices that might know something about the anchor. Not one number led to a real person or even one of those annoying robots that asks if you have a touchtone phone. Perhaps it is the season. Apparently, the entire United States Navy is on winter break.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I received Ms. Ledsinger’s question, I figured the anchor must be a school symbol or something. This theory fell apart when a co-worker pointed out that Patapsco’s teams are known as the Patriots and not the Anchorites, which is just as well because anchorites were never much on teamwork. Consequently, I quickly prepared to visit the anchor cemented in the ground in front of the main doors of Patapsco High School to photograph and become acquainted with the thing. But it was raining. And It was cold. So I huddled in my office, warming my fingers in the glow of my monitor, and started making calls.

At this point I learned that getting people to call you back the week before Christmas is about as easy as keeping a narcoleptic bear from hibernating. But I persevered.

The school had very little information. No one could remember when the piece of nautical hardware in question had been installed or why. Some speculated that it was added because of the maritime tradition of the area or because the name “Patapsco” means “water with white caps” in the language of the original inhabitants of the area. Somebody remembered that the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society was in charge of the anchor’s maintenance.

So, like in times past, I turned to the society for help. It turns out that the society requested the anchor from the U.S. Navy in the early 1970s for installation at the school to commemorate Commodore Joshua Barney who grew up in the area. The anchor is in fact still owned by the Navy but on “indefinite loan” to the society. The Navy requires the society to keep the monument clean and maintained and displayed “with dignity.” Once a year, a society representative must assure the Navy in writing that the anchor is still where the society put it.

Could you imagine what our anthem would be like If all military equipment was treated this way? “And the rockets’ red glare / the bombs bursting in air / but a note from the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society assured us / that our flag was still there.”

Anyway, nobody seems to know what ship the anchor came from except possibly the Navy, and the Navy ain’t talking. The society tells me that it is of a style and from the era consistent with Barney’s career but is quick to point out that it is not from a ship on which he served. I tried to get more information straight from the source but, as I have already made clear, I might as well have been asking for the design specs of the nuclear power plants on our latest generation of ballistic missile submarines.

But why whine when I can digress? Thanks to local historian Buzz Chriest, I learned the following information. Joshua Barney was born in Baltimore on July 6, 1759, and raised on a farm nearer to what is now General John Stricker Middle School than to the high school. At the age of 12, Barney went to sea. He commanded his first vessel while still In his teens. During the Revolutionary War he served with distinction as a captain of privateers and in the Continental Navy, where he earned the rank of commodore. After the war, he served in the French navy before returning to Maryland in 1812. During the War of 1812, he was given command of the upper Chesapeake flotilla, a group of gun barges and other unlikely craft charged with harassing the British fleet menacing Washington and Baltimore.

Barney was unable to match the superior British vessels and eventually destroyed his flotilla and struck overland with a force of sailors and marines to defend Washington from the approaching redcoats. While he did not succeed, he and his men were virtually the only Americans to receive any form of credit for their performance during the Battle of Bladensburg. While the American regulars and militiamen ran, Barney and his men held their ground and covered the retreat with vicious artillery fire until overrun by greatly outnumbering forces. Barney was badly injured in the thigh and taken prisoner but was treated with honor by his captors, who respected his bravery and gallantry. Barney later retired to his farm in Elkridge and died in Pittsburgh in 1818.

So that’s the story. The Navy owns the anchor that was placed by the society on school property to commemorate a local fighting sailor. And let this week’s column be a lesson to you. If you want answers to your questions about local oddities, write to me. Don’t ask the Navy.

(first published 2000)

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